Saturday, July 01, 2006

The men behind the mall: we did it to save downtown

"I Have Often Walked Down This Street Before"

To commemorate the 30th anniversary of Charlottesville's downtown pedestrian mall, original supporters shared their oral histories Friday at City Hall Council Chambers at the east end of the mall.

NBC-29's Shane Edinger moderated the panel of six speakers and audience of about fifty. After a PowerPoint slideshow, the panel discussed for the rest of the hour with 15 minutes of audience questions and comments. No opponents of the mall seemed to be present.

The slideshow was fun. It showed just how large Main Street was: two-way traffic, parking on both sides, wide sidewalks on both sides with large, lit signs overhead. At Barnes and Nobles at Barracks Road Shopping Center in the local interest section next to the magazines, there's a book on the annual Dogwood Festival with more photographs of the pre-mall era.

The slideshow focused several photos on Bibb's Fish Market at present-day ESCAFE and Virginia Lunch now the Mud House. Later on an audience member commented how there were no people in the photos. The photographer said he had intentionally avoided people. That decision makes the downtown look like a ghost town and effectively excludes the people from the history the pictures now tell.

The first "Mall Day" was April 13, 1971. The mall was approved in February 1974 by Councilors Charles Barbour and Mitch Van Yahres. Mayor Francis Fife, Jill Rinehart, and George Gilliam abstained ostensibly for conflicts of interest. Because of heavy opposition, the state attorney general eventually issued a legal opinion that the two votes was a legal mandate. The mall opened in the summer 1976 from First to Sixth Streets.

Among the speakers, now retired city planner Satyendra Huja remembered how he found it "worrisome" that so few businesses supported the mall. He pointed out that the mall had already been proposed when he was hired. Others have credited him with the idea.

Charles Barbour, Charlottesville's first black mayor, recalled that downtown was dying. They needed to make a change, do something. So the only question was what kind of mall: completely pedestrian or partial mall to accommodate some traffic. He said the cars parked on Main Street didn't belong to customers, but merchants and their employees.

Barbour's demeanor seemed that of someone campaigning for office. He claimed he had lobbied for public restrooms on the mall 30 years ago when Leggetts (Regal Cinema) closed which had restrooms. He said he had wanted the Fashion Square Mall in the city limits. And he found it hard to believe that buses have been dropping off passengers at the two vehicular crossovers.

Mitch Van Yahres said the Fashion Square Mall had been talked about at the time of the Downtown Mall. Fashion Square located in the county on 29-North after the planning commission would not approve it. Van Yahres was the last Virginia mayor to lose an annexation suit, he reported. The city had wanted to annex Fashion Square and Pantops Shopping Center.

Van Yahres said he and businessman, mall opponent Harry Romansky (spelling?) visited five other malls. While Mitch came away with positive feelings about the malls, Harry didn't like any of them. But they both agreed the mall in Michigan City, Indiana was a failure because of the median strip down the middle.

Cole Hendrix, city manager 1971-1995 and current town manager of Orange, said the mall was designed by Larry Hoppen (spelling?) who designed Picadilly Square in San Francisco. He recalled that, ironically, most of the mall opponents were from North Downtown. First two department stores left, then little by little they all left downtown, said Hendrix. Unlike Norfolk which ripped up their mall, there was no demand for that in Charlottesville.

Alvin Clements, a banker who led the commission to design the mall, said that sometimes he thought only two people actually supported the mall: himself and Cole Hendrix. He said the mall's goal was to transform downtown to a boutique district with residences on the upper floors, but it never happened. He observed that the mall has become a "large food court."

The moderator asked panelists what they think is the greatest threat now to the mall. Hendrix said the bricks need repair. Barbour said he'd liked to see a department store. Huja wants more residents downtown. Clements said we need to focus on infrastructure such as parking. Van Yahres said gentrification is a threat and he worries that the only grocery store downtown will attract is an upscale grocery.

Reaction of the Reporter:

I was too young to oppose the mall and, at 12 years old, not really aware of the arguments. All I know is the grocery stores, department stores, cheap diners and interesting characters are all gone. The mall was economic cleansing, a continuation of the ethnic/racial cleansing of the Vinegar Hill and Garrett Street areas, made necessary because of declining tax revenues.

Economic cleansing is when the government changes the political or actual landscape to favor new business over existing business. The cleansing of the businesses of Vinegar Hill and Garrett Street was easy: condemn and destroy. But downtown took longer because businesses had to leave voluntarily.

I don't support tearing up the mall today. That would be more economic cleansing. Vehicular traffic would serve only to put the inebriated food court out of business.

Alvin Clements, Cole Hendrix, Mitch Van Yahres, Shane Edinger, Satyendra Huja, Charles Barbour, Mayor David Brown June 30 2006


Anonymous TrvlnMn said...

Blair Hawkins wrote: Later on an audience member commented how there were no people in the photos. The photographer said he had intentionally avoided people. That decision makes the downtown look like a ghost town and effectively excludes the people from the history the pictures now tell.

While they may not have been available at the presentation the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society Website has a couple of series of photographs on their website that include photos with people from the time period (the Russell Payne Collection of the 1940's and the John Shepherd series ca. 1976). They are pretty interesting trips back into time.

7/03/2006 5:10 PM  

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